Swimmer joins MIT’s ranks
of English Channel conquerors
It’s becoming an MIT thing.
Junior swimmer Clara Bennett – who typically swims up to 1,650 yards for her team in meets –traveled nearly 15 miles further than that in late July to become the third student-athlete from the school this decade to successfully swim the English Channel.
During 11 hours after departing from beneath the white cliffs at Dover, Bennett fought through shoulder pain and exhaustion to climb ashore over barnacled boulders at Cap Griz Nez, France.
Her MIT predecessors in the task were men – middle-distance and butterfly specialist Nicholas Sidelnik in 2003 and swimmer and water polo team member Forrest Nelson in 2005.
Bennett’s attempt benefited from good weather and low tides, as she fought past a slow start and found a steady rhythm through waters in which temperatures remained around 62 degrees for most of the trek.
“I didn’t have any nerves prior to jumping in and surprisingly I felt good while finishing,” she said. “The first few hours were definitely the toughest. After three hours, there was no concern about making it, just a matter of how.”
Bennett prepared for the swim with a six-hour trek in 60-degree water and with open-water training swims, including one in which she battled 5-foot waves and a 25-knot head win off Boston.
Her daily four-hour workout routine included dry-land exercises, yoga and kickboxing.
Bennett shared the achievement with friend and former swim club teammate Mallory Mead, who recently finished her intercollegiate swim career at Western Kentucky. Mead swam the Channel two days before Bennett, then joined in coaxing her fellow Indiana native through the attempt.
“I definitely have to give her the credit for planting the seed to make this swim,” Bennett said of Mead, who previously had participated in the Manhattan Island Marathon and was the top woman finisher in the 2007 Boston Light Swim.
Both women shared their experiences – as well as photos documenting their swims – through a blog.
Bennett joked in recounting her own swim that she was able to “commission the infamous MIT weather machine” – which institute students claim brings good weather during the annual Campus Preview Weekend for incoming freshmen – to arrange ideal conditions for her July 28 journey across the Channel.
‘Decided to keep going’
Unlike many who swim the Channel, Bennett’s roughest moments came near the beginning.
“Somewhere around 1.5 to 2 hours, I began to get a serious twinge in my injured left shoulder,” she wrote in the blog. “By 2.5 hours, I was sobbing, and the combined effect of boat fumes/pain/thoughts of not finishing were causing me to retch and dry heave. I stopped and floated for probably a minute or two, while everyone from the boat was yelling to ask if I was okay….
“I yelled that my shoulder was hurting, and Eric (the pilot of the boat following Bennett’s swim) came out of the forward cabin to basically ask if I needed to get out. (I think his words were ‘It's your decision Clara, either way.’) Anyway, I obviously decided to keep going.”
She shook off the pain to make good time through the remainder of the swim, and ultimately was encouraged enough – thinking that she was still five or more miles from the French coach, then learning that she only had about three miles to go – to begin “kicking like a madwoman.”
After climbing onto shore, “I grabbed three rocks and stuffed them in my suit; one for me, one for Mallory (who forgot to grab one), and one for good measure.”
Bennett and Mead ultimately celebrated their achievement by writing their own names and messages on the ceiling of Dover’s White Horse Tavern – alongside inscriptions left by previous conquerors of the Channel.
James D. Kramer, MIT director of sport information and communications, provided material for this story.
© 2010 The National Collegiate Athletic Association